Guy’s News: Can free trade ever be fair?

This week marks the beginning of Fairtrade Fortnight. The principle of fairness is central to how we run Riverford, though the practice it is not always straightforward. Close to home, when we are able to manage relationships ourselves, we come very close to making principle a reality. Profits are shared with staff, we will become employee-owned next year, we have uniquely longterm, secure contracts with our fellow farmers and an honest pricing policy whereby all customers, new and old, pay the same. When trading further from home with more people in the supply chain things get harder; outside Europe we rely on Fairtrade certification, for bananas and pineapples in particular.

The combination of global free trade, innovation and capitalism has driven down the cost of almost everything, especially food, generating wealth and unprecedented consumption in the process. That there are benefits for most is unquestionable, but how these are shared has never been at all fair. Are brutal exploitation and inequality an intrinsic part of wealth creation? However much we want something to be fairer and are even willing to pay more for it, the power of capitalism stems from its simplistic measurement of value. This makes it good at delivering cheaply what can be objectively quantified and traded, but poor at integrating subjective concepts like fairness and human dignity.

Can free trade ever be fair? Can capitalism be harnessed to deliver more than wealth? I confess to occasional scepticism and sometimes feel it is futile to even try, yet, to quote Noam Chomsky, “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.” Like all success stories Fairtrade has its critics and some participant growers are frustrated, yet all the ones I have met have told me it has benefitted their communities, bringing empowerment and encouraging co-operation and social cohesion. It is hard to put a value on fairness and hope, but life is worth little without them so we support Fairtrade and the contribution it makes to creating a better world.

Guy Watson

10 responses to “Guy’s News: Can free trade ever be fair?

  1. Fairtrade is not perfect but it is an deal that I am more than happy to embrace and so glad that firms like yours do too.

  2. I buy too, in hope, and for lack of much else obvious to do. Probably being lazy!

  3. Really admire you for creating an employee-owned business.
    And we owe it to ourselves and others to at least try to be hopeful, even though that often feels almost impossible.

  4. So happy with the nuanced and thorough mind and heart of your blog, and the Riverford farm on the whole. I stumbled upon your farm on the www while doing reseach for the ecological art project BEE HEROES that i am leading for the art foundation Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen in the Netherlands (near Amsterdam and the coast).

    It also made me remember Karl Popper: Optimism is a moral duty. People have to believe that the world can be(come) better.

    And via this believe ones own life becomes more joyful too. A dubble gain 🙂

    Thx for the great read!

  5. Heartening post.

  6. Elizabeth Leaford

    I have been a supporter of fairtrade for about 25 years. I have seen it gradually appear in shops like Sainsbury and Marks and Spencern yet in shops like Morrisons the lines have decreased. I remain hopeful, I think we have to continue to demand and ask where our food and clothes are coming from and demand to know who made our clothes and how they work and live.

    • I would very much like to find out where Fairtrade clothes for larger people are stocked. As I have converted to not buying animal products these days, I find that vegan styles do not fit me and I have no choice but to go for attire that is not marked Fairtrade. I feel it is just the state of it; that such ethical clothing companies need to cut their cloth in order to make the money they need to carry on, which inevitably means making greater quanitites of smaller sizes. I have found hemp clothing in the past, but even here the sizes do not fit me like they once did.

  7. Dear Guy

    I applaud your sentiments. We have to try to share our trade to hel countries that are trying to grow. I try to buy Faitrade bananas as I have seen in small islands in the Caribbean that with trade drug trafficking increases.

    I whole heartedly support Riverford Farm and the way you work.

    May you be an example to others.

    Keep up the good work.

  8. Dear Guy

    I applaud your sentiments. We have to try to share our trade to help countries that are trying to grow. I try to buy Faitrade bananas as I have seen in small islands in the Caribbean that without fair trade drug trafficking increases.

    I whole heartedly support Riverford Farm and the way you work.

    May you be an example to others.

    Keep up the good work.

  9. Can I ask who is advising your move to Employee Ownership and what the legal model is that you are using? I’ve seen some EO disasters in my time and trust you are going to avoid the traps and pitfalls.

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